Can lonely Morty sift through the daydreams, sort friend from foe--or will he lose it all?
| Wherever Mortimer hid, traces of the Arizona sun's baleful radiation reached him; it's brutal heat corrupted everything. It cornered him, twisted every refuge into a prison cell. Like the bars of a prison, Mortimer clutched the door of his air-conditioned office at Arthur's Financial Services.|
After his daring escape into the burning sea of unseen fire, in the minutes it took to cross the road, the sun and scorched blacktop in front of the deserted truck stop left Morty feeling brittle and inhuman, like a mummy.
His footsteps faltered as he neared LaFayette's Diner, and he had to correct his course. When Morty opened the door, the refrigerated air scratched his throat on the way to reviving him. As the air-conditioner rattled to life, the wilting daisies in the vase by the register waved to him.
He stepped between the stools, up to the counter.
“Hey, Mort.” The waitress reached up to sweep a few gray hairs away from her black, thick-framed glasses into her rich, mahogany mane where they vanished, giving her a look timeless and regal. “Sure you want to take this to go? We've got plenty of room.”
He looked at his watch and shook his head, then pulled out his wallet. He winked. “Places to see, people to go.”
The waitress chuckled as she accepted his debit card. Her laugh lines made her stern face welcoming.
Seated in the next stool, Marlena flipped her flame-orange hair, making Morty jump. Her voice rang with sarcasm. “Oh, Morty! Thought you weren't going to be eating here.”
During his coffee break, Morty had told his coworkers of his decision to tighten the belt. Even keeping his eyes away from Marlena's face, still the force of her judgment burned. She didn't need to know his pathetic need to be here, in the diner--how LaFayette's called to him in a way that his home did not. He shrugged, then forced a smirk. “Internet's down. Recipes don't figure themselves out.”
She put her chin on her hands and winked. “You know they have these things for that.”
His smirk softened at her jest; the walk home could wait. He tried not to match her smile. “What, books? Amazon can't be reached, either.” As he took the bar stool beside her, he glared at his watch but didn't bring it into view.
“You've heard of printers.” She blew on her soup. He barely caught her looking up at him. “At, you know, the office?”
Morty cleared his throat.
"They're like coworkers. They do all the work for you." She looked up, long enough to tag him with her hot, blue, destructive eyes, the center of her flame. Then, she curled up in front of her bowl of soup. The little woman, young enough to be his daughter, brought waves of steam from her bowl.
Like the breath of a dragon? But, of course not. The soup surely had not cooled yet. He chuckled, shook his head. He leaned in to the counter as well, his shoulders curling into a match for her.
The waitress met his gaze as she put his meal in the bag. She arched her eyebrow, glancing first at Marlena, then at him.
The exact reaction Leah would have, if serving a mouse seated next to a cat. The little dragon-girl could swallow Morty in one bite. Morty tugged at his collar and looked away.
With a shrug, the waitress placed the to-go carton on top of the bag in front of him.
Morty snuck a glance at Marlena. Sitting as she sat, nodding in the same rhythm, he could almost think her safe, human, and potentially, even friendly. That rarely happened since he had been abandoned in the desert. With Marlena, it had to be a mirage, the thirst playing tricks on his mind. He tried to will himself to leave—to sidestep the risk—and instead, raised his hand to object.
“Careful, Morty.” Marlena spoke his own thoughts, made them sound almost silly, and flashed a perfect mirror image of his joking smile. “I've been known to be brutally frank.”
“I'm sure I've heard it all.” Morty picked at his nachos with a plastic fork, happy they at least, would never burn him.
“Time management? 'Places to see, people to go.' And yet...”
Not this again. He swallowed, as her words ate at his stomach. He avoided looking at his watch, but checked the clock on the wall, and tugged at his right ear.
She scratched her left ear and shrugged. “It's a thing, with you. Isn't it?”
“Everybody has to juggle a few things.” The excuse sounded thin, even to him. Morty frowned, picking out bits of red pepper before taking a bite—anything to avoid looking up. “I pull my weight.”
“Customer data is safe with you, right?” She put her hand on Morty's knee. “You've been working there forever. They'd never come down on you.”
Sure, everybody knew that Morty had privileges at the office. Still, he'd be a fool to take it that far—whatever she had in mind. “There are limits.”
“Like when you had that slump last month. Did they talk to you?”
“Asked me about it.”
“They asked me about it, too. Like, could I pick up your slack.”
Was it really that bad? Of course; bosses always try this. Morty scoffed and looked at her out of the corner of his eye.
She smirked and met his gaze until he looked away.
Morty took a bite. “Maybe that, maybe something else. My numbers were good, though.”
She might be a better performer than he, but bosses always push for more. He knew better than to let her lay that on him, though her logic wriggled about, never letting him free, pinning him down and crushing away his breath. His cheeks burned. She always left him feeling sunburned; why did he even talk to her? Morty looked down and right, not as hungry as before. “Can I get a to-go box?”
The waitress frowned down on Marlena, looking ten years younger as she set the lid back on the nacho tray.
“It's okay, big guy.” Marlena grabbed his gaze, stared up at him, eyes wide, lower lip protruding, as if she were the one on trial. She put her hand on his arm. “I get it. Every form of refuge has it's price, right?”
The dragon loomed over him, staring down hungrily.
Morty nodded, swallowed, and pulled at his collar. He wondered if she knew he pretended to be lazy. He played off the false hope that, when he wanted to, he would step up. Did she know that he couldn't compete, never could, and never would? A fish in a drying puddle. Did she ever feel the same, as if the fire were dying? Maybe they had some kind of common ground after all. He wanted to ask her, but frowned and scratched his mustache.
“Us little guys gotta stick together.” She stared at Morty for a moment, big-eyed and glaring at once. Then, before he quite freaked, she looked down at her soup, stirring. “I'd do the same for you. Have, actually. If you noticed.”
What's she talking about? “Thank you. I appreciate your help.” Pretending she let him off the hook on that, he grabbed his neck and pondered jumping out the windows, making a run for it.
“It's all right--wasn't anything serious.” She punched him in the shoulder and laid a full-fare bus pass in front of his food. Though it had been activated, it would get him out of here, in relative comfort. “Just promise me you'll remember this when I need something.”
He hesitated as he reached for the pass. He did not usually indulge in such luxuries.
She slid it under his hand and slid hers over his. “No strings. I won't ask you to do anything. Unless you want to help.”
What could it hurt? Those eyes, cloudless and sky blue, and the flame-colored curls made her seem so at home in the burning sands of this Arizona wasteland. Morty sorely needed a friend, especially here. He looked out the window.
The desert yellowed the grass. In the bend of the willow, he saw his own grief, timeless mourning at being bound in alien soil. Even the Earth rejected him. How fitting to befriend a spirit born to live here, a fire elemental like Marlena. Sure, she twisted and undid everything she touched, but what choice did he have? If he escaped Marlena's twisting heat, Arizona herself would eventually do him in. He nodded his agreement and straightened the card as he forced it into the teal folds of his left shirt pocket.
She picked up her bowl and drank a few swallows of the hot liquid, then clicked the lid down on his lunch. “Bus will be there in a few minutes. You don't want to miss it, and I...” She looked out toward the office.
Morty nodded, bagged his to-go box and shuffled out, shaking his head to get his balance.
The register dinged. When Morty glanced back, the waitress stood over the little ginger woman, lips pursed and finger wagging like a baton. She caught Morty's eye and smiled. The laugh lines formed behind the glasses--at least, until she looked back down at Marlena.
Morty shivered and pushed out on the heavy glass door. Dusty wind like a blow dryer scoured his face. He pushed through it toward the bus stop. He shaded his eyes as the sun burned his cheeks and the landscape dazzled his eyes, causing him to stumble on smooth pavement. Heat pressed down. Uprooted, Morty did not belong in this world. The solar radiation killed all but a few, real trees; their roots reach deep in the dying soil, and find only emptiness to embrace. Their fellows traded leaves for spines, even as the lawns traded grasses for thirsty brown dust spiked with gravel. The earth itself turned against him, save for the enchanted oasis behind him. He stared at the hot steel bench as he trudged toward the stop. “Back to reality.”
He was about a car length behind the bench when the giant crate of a bus pulled to a stop, and its brakes hissed at him. Morty ran to catch it, then breathed a sigh of relief as he climbed the steps and ran his pass through the scanner.
The driver made a turning motion with her hand.
Morty had turned it around, color toward himself—a rookie mistake. Obviously, the driver needed to see the green of the full-fare pass. Even with age bleaching the color from his mis-cut goatee, Morty could not pass for more than forty, had not qualified for the senior discount. While Marlena no longer qualified for the junior discount, she would never let that stop her. So why did she even have this one? His stomach lurched as he looked at the pass. His hand cramped and locked as he went to slide it. “I don't know.”
The driver nodded with an encouraging smile that suggested he should slide it again.
He took a deep breath and ran the card. It failed. He jumped a little and stepped back down the stairs.
The driver rolled her eyes and gave a conspiratorial wink, then waved him back and parked. “'Head of schedule. Sit back and relax while we wait for time to leave this stop.”
Morty put on his earbuds and tuned his FM radio app to ninety-nine point nine.
The singer started crowing about how he had finally found his cheering section, the girl who could help him turn down all the rest.
Shut up! The tears stung behind his eyes, and he threw the earbuds across the bus. “Ellen wasn't some dancer in a mini-skirt. She was Merlin!—and Cleopatra, and—” Worth the insane trek to Phoenix, it seemed.
Silence filled the bus. Nobody wanted to interrupt the middle-aged fool raving at a pair of earbuds, a man with too little color in his badly butchered goatee and his hair swept in a ponytail to save on haircuts. He stared at the earbuds under the seat, willing his cheeks to cool, willing everyone to look away, willing himself to pretend that he had not been heard. At last, he snatched them by the chord. He offered a feeble explanation to nobody in particular: “Called Felix for support, not to listen to him badmouth my ex.”
Without looking to see how badly he embarrassed himself, he punched up the contacts app, and scrolled to one labeled, “Talk.” A hotline. He had promised to keep that one handy. It had been a lie at the time, but it gave him some comfort, knowing where to find that number. He considered the day.
Marlena always had that jacket. He noticed her carrying it when the security chief pulled her into his office. They thought nobody was looking. It had been ten degrees over a hundred. Even a salamander witch would have limits, would need to cool off sometime—probably, she hid something in the pockets. The man either investigated her or had some other target in mind, maybe wanted her help with something. Which begged the question, did Morty want to join in, help her play with fire? He looked back down at the phone, eyes leaving the hotline and traipsing down his history. He tapped it to push back against the fade to black.
Nothing to see. “They're all gone. She's not a friend, but... if Marlena reaches out, can I afford to turn her down?”
Once day changed to night, the heat faded from that of an open oven to the back of a bakery. It still dried Morty's throat and nose, still made breathing a chore. The town still reminded him of a burned-out moon more than a place for humans to live. He ran his hand through his hair. What was he doing there, at the diner by the dead truck stop? What did that crazy Phoenix firebird named Marena want?
As if in answer, a mouse ran past him, followed by a sweet, yellow-striped cat.
Morty walked in and took a seat. The waitress from the morning plunked down a water. “On the house. You look like the daisies.”
He laughed and shook his head then drained the glass. The water did never quite reach his thirst. “No, I insist.”
“What brings you here so late?”
“Didn't you work this morning?” He stopped to look at this woman as she held his gaze. Her friendly smile brought life to a weary face. Her name tag, Leah Faye. “That's an awful long shift, Leah.”
“Nice deflection, Mort. You're not dressed for work. Can I get you something?”
He grimaced. “Meeting someone.”
Her eyebrows came down hard, then came up in the middle. She shook her head, and her eyes crinkled at the edges again. “Watch yourself. You'll find your Nimue. Just don't fall for every cheap charm some enchantress casts your way.” She brushed her hands over Morty's knuckles and walked back into the kitchen.
Morty looked down. Nimue, the woman who brought down Merlin—or elevated him beyond the mortal realm, depending on whom you asked. He'd read about her in a book, a while back. Funny that she pronounced it in such a strange way, exactly how it sounded in his head. Funnier still, that Leah should make such an obscure reference, that she should even know of Nimue, let alone expect Morty to recognize the name.
“Oh, thank you so much!” Marlena ran up and threw her arms around him, put her nose against his neck. “So glad you came. Don't have many friends I can count on.”
As Marlena's touch momentarily quenched his troubles, Morty's eyes mised over. After a luxurious few seconds, Morty took her by the shoulder, and gently pushed her to the near edge of public space, from where her carefully-staged, adoring smile called him back. “What seems to be the matter?”
“I left my key-card on my desk. Can't get in without it. I was hoping you brought yours.”
"Oh," he sighed with relief. “I'll go get it for you.”
Marlena made a face and shook her head. “That would be weird, you going to my desk. I have a better idea.” She pulled a small machine out of her pocket.
Explains the bus pass. Morty's stomach clenched as he looked at that contraption, then looked around for help. She could do more than doctor fake bus passes with the data a collection agent had. So many secrets she could steal, and lay the blame on him with her technical black magic. “What are you going to do, copy my key card?”
Smiling brightly, she nodded.
This time Morty caught Leah's eyes
. She pressed her fist to her face, but never looked away.
Morty flashed on a memory, a few years ago, the first day he had come in to the diner. He had been reading Nimue's story. Had Leah seen it, remembered it all this time? Perhaps he wasn't as alone as he thought. He pinched the bridge of his nose. “You must really think I'm stupid.”
“Us little guys, we have to stick together. You'll need me, one day.”
He saw Marlena's cheap enchantments for what they were: mirages conjured by a double-dealing wizard. Like you'd be there for me. “Hope not.” Morty walked over to the counter.
“For what it's worth, it's not stupidity I'm exploiting. It's—” She got a sour look, then shrugged. “I mean, I was hoping that I could appeal to your—”
She did appeal to him, not only as a woman—but as a danger, as an escape. “Whatever. I'll be fine without your help.”
“That's okay. There's more than one way to skin a—.” She smiled and pinched his cheek. “Mouse. I'm sure I'll have you beating a path to my door before you know it.”
Leah wrote something in the air with her finger. “You heard the man. You're not welcome here.”
Marlena's eyebrows pinched together for an instant, then she gave a quick nod. She stepped back, threw up her left hand in a strange gesture, then snatched her jacket up off the stool. “All right, Faye. Nothing to do here, anyhow. We work together, Morty and I—for now.”
Morty smiled at his friend, Leah, as the little ginger-haired wizard Marlena vanished into the night.
“Took you long enough.” Leah sat next to him. She tilted her head and combed his hair back into place with her fingernails. The lavender in her perfume and the sharp spice in the tea took him back, to another time—another world—cool and green and welcoming. “But then, you never did take a hint.”
Unable to guess what she spoke of, Morty smiled and shook his head, happy to live in the moment, whether here in the diner or back then, in his dream world.
She leaned back against the counter, ready to sip her potion. Morty grabbed his own cup and followed suit. He smiled as if one of them had returned from a long journey, to meet with a long-lost friend. Perhaps that counted among his fancies. Let the sun and Earth and Marlena try their worst. If he could find one trustworthy person to share a moment, there could be others, even here, so far away from home. At long last, he could slake his thirst.